Embrace your leavers

EmbraceYourLeavers

We were getting a resignation every 2 weeks. Our churn was 40% and accelerating. On paper, 40% means recruiting the equivalent of the whole team in 2 and a half years. In reality, the cost of doing that for a team of 60 consultants meant that the cost of simply standing still would take us under. You can't recruit at that pace to maintain the status quo in most businesses, but especially not in a consulting business.

That was the team I took on. A team of really talented, skilled, and great fun consultants. But a team that was heavily demoralised and running for the hills. Or at least for better places to work.

I was reminiscing with a couple of team members recently about those times. They mentioned that a key factor in their changing their mind and staying on was my open acceptance in my very first conversation with them that they might leave us.

Openness to the possibility of their departure paused their thought process for long enough that it eventually stopped them from actually doing it.

Most companies I know treat the whole issue of leaving very badly. At best, it's handled negatively. At worst, heads are in the sand pretending it's not happening at all.

But there is a better way. It involves what you do before they've even resigned, once they've resigned, and after they've left. And that way, paradoxically, is to embrace leaving and leavers.

Whether or not you have a leavers' problem, this article is for you if you want to make dealing with leavers both proactive and positive for your organisation.

The issue

There is a lot of discussion in industry about increases in employee churn. I've discussed in other articles (about millennials, perks and generating company loyalty for example) ways in which leaders and owners of companies can look to create better places for their teams to work. But the issue of leaving itself warrants a deeper look, and some better ways of dealing with it.

Rampaging Employee Churn

Surveys on employee churn, inasmuch as actual statistics exist, point both ways. Employee churn (the percentage of your team that leaves of its own accord every year) is increasing according to some, and decreasing according to others. I suspect it depends where you're looking, but certainly the perception in our industry, and especially for millennials (accused of many things, fickleness being just one) is that job-hopping is rife. Though I hasten to add that Generation Z, the current crop of graduates, is perceived as more workmanlike.

Honestly, I don't know if it's on the increase or not. If you have reliable industry stats, feel free to put them in the comments. I just know that in most cases, it's higher than it should be. And that the perception of most people I talk to is that it's on the increase.

Growing Mutual Mistrust

What appears to be different for sure is the nature of the expectation between companies and their employees. We know that the expectation of joining a company with the prospect of a gold watch for 25 or 50 years' service is barely a memory. Not even a memory for most entering the workforce today – it predates their birth.

I'm seeing it from both perspectives. There's a discernibly greater suspicion by people of their employers, and their employers' motives. And there's a discernibly greater suspicion from managers about the commitment of team members to their employer.

Whether that narrative is true or not, this perception of mutual suspicion, unhealthy as it is, paradoxically leads to one healthy outcome. Both employees and managers are asking for more explicit expectations on how the working relationship will be beneficial to both.

In your world of one

That all said, whether there is growing mistrust “on average” (whatever that means) or not, they do surface my deep suspicion of averages, and my even deeper suspicion of taking action on the basis of averages. We've all heard the one about the statistician who drowned crossing a river with an average depth of 6 inches (Captured in Danziger's cartoon).

Whatever the average is or isn't doing, you and each member of your team have individual experiences. I've met leaders, owners and managers of companies who've heard so often that employees are more fickle that they've allowed it to become self-fulfilling in their companies.

If you accept that everyone on your team is more fickle, you're less likely to do those things that would make your company one that people don't want to leave. Those who choose not to accept fickleness as a given build companies that people want to stay in.

Strangely, though, I've also found that creating a company that has a positive way for leaving to happen also encourages people to stay.

Because leaving will happen. And when it does, you face a choice. It can be bitter. Or worse, it can be ignored. Or it can be positive.

Leaving can be a hushed affair, or an en-masse undercurrent that nobody talks about, or it can be openly discussed and planned for.

{{Apple Clap Out from OH NO RACHIO! on Vimeo.}}

The Apple clapout. Extreme? Maybe. A fit for your culture? Who knows. But there's no hiding of leavers here.

Whether it's for you or not (and most I would guess probably err on the "not" side), I'd say you need to first acknowledge explicitly that it can and will happen, and then have a strategy to treat it positively.

Sitting on both sides

Like many of you, I've sat on both sides of the leaving table. One experience particularly rankles.

In that company, although all of us in the team simply accepted and celebrated coming and going as a part of our journey, the most senior leader made all departures toxic. All manner of ills were blamed on the departee. It was as if a leaver was the blood-letting that would cure deeper issues. Which of course it never was. I've not heard many people speak well of the culture there, even though they would often speak fondly of each other.

I've also been in the place where accelerating departures meant that people were increasingly encouraged to go quietly and not raise awareness of their departure. Increasingly, people would ask, "Where's John?" only to be told he left a couple of weeks back. And the hush around the departures only made what was already a negative environment somewhat more so.

And I've been the person that people resigned to. Step forward Sean. You were the first person who ever resigned from a team I was leading. November 2000. I remember it clearly. I remember the room. I remember the conversation. I remember welling up on the inside. But I also remember telling you that you were heading to an opportunity that seemed too good not to take. And I've had many similar conversations since.

But I've also had those conversations where I didn't think that was the case. In those instances, I didn't shy away from telling the leaver if I thought they were making a mistake. I don't know how fair or unfair that is as a conversation, but at least I know I told them what I believed to be true.

And that brings me back to my opening paragraph.

When I took on that haemorrhaging team, bringing departure out of the closet and having an honest discussion about it changed its nature. It removed the toxicity that was becoming associated with churn.

It also changed the nature of the conversation. I had another goal. That was to tell each member of the team that while I knew that at some point they would leave, I saw it as my responsibility to give them the opportunity to make as much of their time that they were working with me as possible.

That way, the discussion became more honest, and more positive. Honest, because no one was hiding the fact that we both knew that a lot of people were leaving. We even explicitly accepted that it might happen with the person I was talking to. And positive, because there was a declaration of intent with regards to what I thought my responsibility was while my team member was with me - namely to facilitate their growth aspirations.

Critically, I then made sure I did all I could to fulfil that declaration of intent. I implemented what I called "The Star Generation Engine" - a consultant lifecycle model aimed to provide a fertile ground to allow those who wanted to grow the opportunity to do so. (That forms 2 modules of our Values Led Consulting framework).

Ultimately, bringing leaving out into the open, recognising that it was very possible that each and every team member could go when they pleased, and discussing what to expect until that day, all of these ended up contributing to a significant slowdown of leavers.

The Unhealthy Departure Tax

Departures cost your company money. That's a given. Some are readily quantifiable, others less so. You can find calculators for this all over the web like  this one.

But over and above the normal cost of departures, there's also what I call the "Unhealthy Departure Tax". The incremental cost to your business, over and above the normal cost of leavers, which you incur when departures are handled badly.

Here are a few components of that tax:

  • You can't prepare. The more hidden and unplanned for are the departures, the less your ability to plan succession. Which in our business includes client information, information about our methodologies, physically replacing people on client sites, and a whole host of intellectual capital.
  • You have no opportunity to change their minds. Sometimes the reason behind a departure can be dealt with without necessitating a departure. I'm not talking here about the insidious counter-offer - I'll usually not take on a candidate who's been counteroffered by his current employer, and I won't enter a bidding war with someone who's luring one of my team. But there may be issues that can be resolved by an increase in leave, a change in career planning, a review of client engagements, or a whole host of other reasons. But once your team member has a secured offer that's been accepted from somewhere else, it's a lot harder to deal with that than if it had been discussed in advance.
  • An unhealthy culture develops where people all talk about leaving in hushed tones. Always to each other, but not to the leadership. Things become closed, underground. This creates an air of negativity that insidiously starts to seep into many other areas of your business.
  • Accelerating departure. This kind of toxicity only accelerates things. I believe there is a tipping point beyond which departures accelerate, and it gets really hard to pull it back or recover. The more unhealthily your company deals with departures, the more tendency there is for it to snowball.
  • Your reputation starts taking a dive. Word gets out. In meetups. Online. On Glass Door. On client site. From both current and former team members.
  • You become a less attractive destination for talented consultants. As a direct result of reputational damage, fewer good candidates come to your door.

Most companies pay some level of Unhealthy Departure Tax - it's really hard to overcome every aspect that could be negative.

But it's a progressive tax. The amount of Unhealthy Departure Tax you pay increases the more unhealthily you deal with departures.

And there's a lot you can do to reduce it.

Leaving is one part of the Consultancy Lifecycle process we cover across two modules within our Values-Led Consulting framework and programme. It is delivered by our founder, Iyas, based on his experience while growing a consultancy and Full Services Agency which was sold for £42m.

Our next course starts on 4th Apr 2018. You can find more details here.

A realistic and positive approach to leavers

There's a lot in your power to do as a leader of a consulting organisation to reduce the unhealthy departure tax. There's plenty on this blog regarding culture and values, which are at the heart of being a place people want to work, and I don't intend to rehash them here. This is specifically what you can do to reduce a culture of dealing with departures in an unhealthy way.

Don't cover up the blindingly obvious

Leavers Email

If your retention is already in a bad place, then discuss it with the team to see what you can do, then do it.

Don't make the conversations obsessional. This isn't about making this the core of how you run the business or your culture. But do have them.

In individual meetings, accept that members on your team aren't with you for life, and embrace your role as a leader to provide an environment where those who want to can forge a satisfying career for themselves.

On that basis, have an open discussion about their intentions and yours. Explicitly discuss how you can both add value to each other, and if you're currently not living up to your part of the bargain, agree what can be done to put it right.

Don't load it up with emotional blackmail. In fact, keep the emotion out of it - I'm not proposing you self-flagellate in endless mea culpas. You do need to accept that f you have a retention issue, then you have a leadership issue. The occasional departure is to be expected in any company - but a flood is about as big a symptom of broken leadership as you can get.

Against that context, you should identify for each individual if there are specific issues that are stopping your company from being the place that helps them realise their professional ambitions, and determine whether any of them are ones you want to or can address.

This may be hard if you are the reason people are leaving. Hard because they may not tell you, and hard because you'll need to change even if they do. But if that's the case, you need to lap it up, and figure out what you can do about it. Much bigger, and different article, but you need to at least identify if that's the case.

In all cases, this should help you identify issues before the resignation comes in, and resolve them where you can. If you do enough of them, you will create an attitude that you can build a more positive culture from.

A word of warning here. If you're already in a bad place, and have managed to create sufficient trust to have this conversation openly, don't commit to something then fail to deliver on it, or you'll have burned your last bridge. So take your time if you need to and evaluate what you can and what you can't commit to.

Look at tour of duty even if retention isn't a problem

Even if your retention isn't in a bad place, you can create a healthier and more proactive approach to discussing departure right from the outset.

I love the "Tour of Duty" approach that Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn's founder, promotes. I didn't do this, but I wish I did, and I'd heartily recommend it

Rather than assuming implicitly, as we mostly do, that someone will be joining for life or an indeterminate amount of time, set up a professional contract with your team based on a finite tour of duty.
This may be, for instance, a two year "tour" in which you agree explicitly what value you and each team member will provide for each other. Then align whatever your career development process looks like with that tour, and do what you can to hold yourself and your team accountable for its delivery.

I'm a fan of a sprint-based career development process, and abhor the more traditional annual review cycle, which doesn't work, and especially doesn't work in consultancies. I cover this in our Values-Led Consulting framework, but may also write about it in a future post.

At the end of each tour, you review it, and agree either to move on to the next tour of duty, or not.

Ask for pre-resignation notice AND demonstrate you respect it

Starting a Consultancy

I recall clearly another conversation I had, this one with Ian a while after I'd taken on the haemorraging team, and after the bleeding had been stemmed. He was one of my principals - a remarkable engineer, genuinely passionate about his craft, a role model to many, a reluctant, but superbly effective mentor formally to many and informally to at least as many, including me. He came to me to discuss a career opportunity he had outside of our team. He hadn't made his mind up. He wasn't approaching it as an opportunity to haggle - neither he nor I work that way. He genuinely wanted my career advice, even though I led the team that he was considering leaving. That conversation opened up all manner of possibilities for us to have a productive and constructive outcome without his departure. And it wouldn't have happened if we had a toxic culture around departures.

Tell your team that you'd rather talk to them about their career options outside the firm before a decision is taken. Then do three things.

First, be honest in your career advice. Trying to dupe a team member is not only wrong, but will backfire.

Second, respect their time to consider. In return for doing this, also ask them to consider any commitments they have to you when looking at their timing.

Finally, if they decide to stay, look at what you need to do for both you and them to recommit to your mutual obligations to help create value for each other.

Leaving isn't an act of treason

There are a whole host of reasons why you should be graceful with departures. At its most fundamental, it is because it is simply the right thing to do. People will leave for a variety of reasons, and we should all respect that, whether or not we agree with their rationale.

But it is also good for your company to deal with them gracefully. Once outside your business, they will also help to create or break your reputation without your even knowing about it.

The departee's last impressions of you count, and will be reflected in how s/he talks to others in good or bad terms about your company. They can either point great people in your direction after they've left, or tell them to avoid your doorstep.

They may end up being client or prospects of yours. They may create an opportunity for you that you'd not have had a sniff of otherwise.

They may even come back. I'd always make sure on return that the fit is still right, but you're more likely to get talent you've helped nurture come back to you if you treated their departure well.

Have honest retention conversations

I have to say that in reality, the chances of changing someone's mind are slim once a resignation has come in  - I think there's a certain emotional line that people cross by the time it's got to actually resigning.

That said, if a resignation does come in from someone you don't want to lose, don't immediately take it as non-negotiable. Have a discussion around the reasons, and genuinely try to resolve them if you can.

If it's about money, then that's not a discussion to have - if they're underpaid, you're at fault for not having resolved it earlier, and if they're not, then you shouldn't overpay to retain them. But don't become the counter-offering employer, it's expensive and it's toxic.

If it's about something else, then see if you can resolve it within your way of doing business. For instance, if it's too long on one client, see if a plan to move them on would make a difference.

Have an exit process

Exit Process

Make sure you have an exit process in place. Aside from whatever can be done by way of handover, especially from a client or an intellectual capital perspective, also ensure you have an exit interview.

The exit interview should serve at least two purposes. First, it's an opportunity for honest feedback. Depending on your culture, you may find people more forthcoming about the company once they've handed their notice in than they were before. Take the feedback gracefully - you can choose whether to believe it or not, and then whether to act on it or not. But take it in good faith and make your mind up later.

Second, it should be the opportunity to introduce your team to whatever alumni plan you have in place. And however big you are, you should have something there.

Have an alumni plan

You should have some form of alumni plan in place. It may be minimal touch and minimal overhead if you're small, but it should exist.For instance, it may include a Facebook or LinkedIn group where people can stay in touch. Your leavers, unless they've genuinely annoyed everyone in your company, will remain in touch with members of your team who have become friends. Provide a platform for it. The rampant danger in your head that it may be a recruitment platform for departees will happen with or without a platform. Make it clear in the rules of the platform that it isn't for placing big job ads, but accept that those conversations will happen regardless of what you do. But a platform may help strengthen a network which will serve your alumni, your current team, and you well.

You can arrange meet-ups. In a pub. In the office. Wherever. But keeping the network strong should help you again from an attraction, a client prospecting, and a cultural perspective.

At the very least, if you have a recruitment bonus for your existing employees, extend this to your alumni. Encourage them to find great people to join you, and reward them for it.

Have a plan to stay in touch. A 6 month newsletter? An occasional call? Genuinely look to help them with your own network if you can, and you will get reciprocation. As well as creating a positive vibrancy around your firm.

Embrace your leavers

You won’t stop people leaving. At some point, it will make sense for people to go somewhere else. Accepting it and making it positive may well end up reducing its frequency. Whether it does or not, it will reduce its negative impact.

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